A GoPride Interview

Natalie Merchant

Natalie Merchant interview with ChicagoPride.com

Wed. July 21, 2010  by Windy City Times

Natalie Merchant
Natalie Merchant sang and wrote songs for the group 10,000 Maniacs in the ‘80s, had a huge solo career in the ‘90s and now, in 2010, she has launched a new project.

WCT: (Windy City Times) Hi, Natalie. So what inspired this new album, Leave Your Sleep?

NM: (Natalie Merchant) Well, I started doing these adaptations of poetry when my daughter was born, in 2003. And people had told me for years my voice was very soothing to children. So many people told me that my voice was the only thing that could put their child to sleep. [Laughs] I didn’t know if that was a compliment until I had a screaming infant of my own. But anyway, I thought I would make an album of lullabies and I would base them on 19th-century British poetry. So that was how the project started.

WCT: Interesting. And then it just grew and grew?

NM: It started expanding and I thought it would be really interesting to put some old nursery rhymes to music because they have the rhymes and things like that. They are very simple but very intriguing. A lot of beautiful imagery and passages that probably had some historical significance that’s been lost. And so the project kept going along, and then as my daughter started getting older and I introduced her to the poems, and she was around all the time while I was working, it also sort of became a tool for teaching her language and teaching her music.

Before I knew it, she was already four or five years old and the poetry just kept growing with her and the project kept expanding, and I thought it would be a really beautiful introduction to poetry and music for children. And I wanted to try and build it, not as a formal curriculum for kids, but on an informal supplementary tool that teachers could use. But then I realized it was really going beyond that and it was becoming just the beautiful body of work that I happened to produce during the years that I was becoming a mother.

WCT: It’s a huge undertaking.

NM: Yeah, seven years in the end and the packaging took quite a long time, too. I started leaning more toward the obscure poets and nobody knew much about them, and so I hired some research assistants who started doing some detective work and research, and started learning that their lives were really interesting. And then I hired a picture researcher because I was intrigued who these people were and I wanted to see their faces, and that took another year.

[There was] writing all of the biographies and historical sketches, and including the photographs and then hiring the book designer—putting together this beautiful book. I had originally thought it would be a great idea to do a larger-format book, but when I approached the record company, it was conceived as a conventional CD, and the book can be pursued another time. And I have enough to do a volume two so maybe, eventually, that’s how I’ll present the book. And I also illustrated many of the poems; it was another thing I wanted to do. There’s also a script for a musical based on all of the poems. The characters in the poems become characters in the narrative.

WCT: Oh my gosh—a musical? That would be great.

NM: It would be really fun.

WCT: Now you weren’t allowed to watch television growing up. Do you allow your daughter to watch TV?

NM: I don’t know if it’s a question of allowing her; it’s just that we don’t own one. And she doesn’t get an allowance so she can’t afford one of her own. She’s definitely intrigued and mesmerized if we’re somewhere and there is a television but, no, we don’t watch it at home. She sees movies on the computer.

WCT: Do you think she’ll be a singer one day?

NM: She’s a singer now. She’s two years into studying piano at the local conservatory and she’s really an incredible musician. She’s very natural.

WCT: And you were a child prodigy, right?

NM: Ha, ha,ha—no, not a prodigy. I think they called me an idiot savant. I took lessons when I was young, but I’m a pretty bad piano player.

WCT: On this tour, are you going to be doing your past solo hits at the Chicago Theater?

NM: Well, the band that I’m taking out, we’re playing our first show tonight, because I’ve been touring with just two guitarists and a cellist since last November, mostly in Europe. But now it’s an eight-piece band, and I’ve got two string players, a bass, clarinet, piano, accordion and two guitarists. So with that configuration, I’m doing some of the older material but of course it’s going to sound completely different, which is exciting. We’re basically doing two concerts: The first half of the concert is all of the new material, and the second half is the older catalog.

WCT: Are you allowed to do any of the 10,000 Maniacs’ songs?

NM: I do some. It’s not a question of being allowed—it’s if I want to do them. I did write or co-write everything that the 10,000 Maniacs did.

WCT: And I loved the Billy Bragg project thing you did.

NM: Yes, that’s very similar to what I am doing now. I definitely kept Billy and Jeff in mind when I was doing these adaptations, because that’s what they did with the materials of the Woody Guthrie archives.

WCT: And I wanted to ask you, they always tried to put you with Michael Stipe back in the day. Did you just want to scream, “OK, he’s gay!” because the public always tried to put you with him as a couple?

NM: We were a couple, for a while. But I think it was more because we played gigs together, our bands formed at the same time, and we were both off the beaten track. Our music had some similarities. We still talk occasionally. I think R.E.M was making a record down in New Orleans and they were just in Berlin I think, a few weeks ago finishing up.

Written by: Jerry Nunn for Windy City Times


Interviewed by Windy City Times